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I have had the pleasure of reading many exemplary papers, but Victor's transcends the best. His comparative study of Renaissance political theory in the history plays, and Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear and Othello for my AP English class deserves multiple reads. Enjoy!!
Raymond Nighan, Ph.D.
April 13, 2010
March 31, 2010
Machiavellian Principles in Shakespeare's Predatory Universe
Shakespeare was a perceptive commentator on a wide array of subjects including the popular political theories of his time. Shakespeare wrote during the rule of the divine right monarch James I and as such, he had to be particularly cautious and subtle in his political criticisms as to not overtly offend the views of the king. James I was an ardent proponent of the legitimacy of the divine right monarchy, but throughout his major tragedies-Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear and Othello, Shakespeare hints at an underlying corruption that can permeate this form of rule. Shakespeare dramatizes this evil through the pervasive use of beast and nature motifs in all four plays to create a predatory universe that dominates both the macrocosmic and microcosmic imagery in the plays. In this predatory environment, the idealistic views of the state as articulated by Plato are deconstructed, and the Shakespearean characters must rely on the cynical but practical political theories of Machiavelli just to maintain their power. Ironically, the major characters-Claudius, Macbeth, Lear and Othello-all make a costly misapplication of Machiavelli's principles. While Machiavelli's ideas were ultimately intended to unify the warring Italian city-states, these leaders either misconstrue his views or lack a critical component of his theory-all of which results in the downfall of their respective kingdoms. Therefore, in demonstrating their abuse of Machiavelli's theories within the constructs of a predatory universe, Shakespeare ironically foreshadows the eventual demise of these characters and their kingdoms as he seeks to unearth a feasible political mean for leaders to employ in the running of the state.
In explicating what he believes to constitute a legitimate government, Shakespeare has to establish a sustainable mean between the idealism of Plato and the skepticism of Machiavelli. In his model of the ideal state as described in the Republic, Plato maintains that a good king must first have a philosophic disposition. As Plato's literary persona Socrates states:
Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils,-- nor the human race, as I believe,--and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day (The Republic, Chapter 5).
An able king must have the dialectic thinking necessary to address not only the problems of the state but also to maintain the proper balance of reason and passion within himself that is crucial to optimizing his leadership capabilities. Ironically, Shakespeare's characters demonstrate the required dialectic thinking, but they manipulate it toward their perverse ends of seizing power rather than using it for the benefit of the state. The political leaders in Shakespeare's plays end up further contributing to the ensuing chaos and disorder in the state around them instead of working to promote harmony and unity within it. Therefore, Plato's idealistic views of the state quickly falter when confronted with the stark reality of political self-interest and corruption. Ironically, in articulating his vision of an ideal state, Plato himself understood that such a kingdom was ultimately unattainable in the temporal world. This realization becomes the basis for the political philosophy of Machiavelli, who maintained that his theories offered the most practical means for a leader to achieve unity amidst the snares and vices of the political realm.
Ironically, Machiavelli shared the same optimistic view of government that Plato had, but he eventually turned into a disillusioned realist upon finding that his political idealism was insufficient to deal with the problems that the war-ridden Italian city-states were confronted with. During the time of his writing, Italy was enduring a tumultuous period of civil strife that was further intensified by the prospect of foreign invasions from France and Spain. In Machiavelli's view, the dire political situation of the time mandated the need for a leader who would unite Italy in the midst of its internal and external turmoil. But Machiavelli soon concluded that such a ruler could not survive the traps and pitfalls of the political world unless the ruler was both strong and cunning. As he cynically remarks in The Prince:
For many have pictured republics and principalities which in fact have never been known or seen, because how one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation; for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil (Chapter 15).
While it would be ideal for a ruler to always abide by morality, Machiavelli believed that in the end, such a mentality would prove self-destructive and would only impede a king from accomplishing his ultimate goal of unifying the state. As such, Machiavelli goes on to define those key political traits that are essential for the success of a leader. While Machiavelli, as a result of his disillusioned predisposition, is initially torn between whether a king should be loved or feared, he eventually sides with the latter claiming that:
Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared (Chapter 17).
Machiavelli deduces that it is simply too risky for a leader to rule by love because love can be easily exploited by political enemies. Machiavelli goes on to reason that paradoxically, a king must act like both a man and a beast while in power in that he must simultaneously rule by law and by force. Machiavelli argues that:
Therefore it is necessary for a prince to understand how to avail himself of the beast and the man. A prince, therefore, being compelled knowingly to adopt the beast, ought to choose the fox and the lion; because the lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves (Chapter 18).
If a king is to maintain his power, he must be able to frighten away the political opposition while skillfully evading the traps of his enemies. Because of his disillusionment with the political realm, Machiavelli believed that a king had to possess these attributes if he wanted to be successful in making Machiavelli's dream of a politically unified Italy a reality.
Machiavelli's cynicism about government was outwardly confirmed during Shakespeare's time with the Essex plot of February 1601, which Shakespeare and his patron, the Earl of Southampton, were indirectly involved in. The conspiracy plot was headed by the Earl of Essex who, despite being a long time favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, attempted to orchestrate an overthrow of the monarchy after being placed under house arrest following his military failure to crush a rebellion in Ireland (Greenblatt 308). Shakespeare was ironically implicated in the plot since the rebellion was scheduled to take place during a staging of Shakespeare's play Richard II, in which the tyrant Richard II is deposed by Bolingbroke (who goes on to become King Henry IV). The plot was stopped however, and Queen Elizabeth suppressed any further dissent by ordering the Earl of Essex and his followers to be executed. Unfortunately, while Shakespeare was cleared of his charges, the Earl of Southampton was imprisoned for his involvement before later being released (Greenblatt 308). Ironically, Queen Elizabeth was quick to recognize the symbolism connecting the conspiracy plot and Richard II, and she emphatically remarked I am Richard II Know ye not that? (Greenblatt 309). As such, the Essex plot validates Machiavelli's skepticism about the political realm and demonstrates why Machiavelli felt that a king must be willing to adopt the strength of the lion and the cleverness of the fox in order to prevent himself from becoming prey to the political manipulation of his enemies.
In between the views of Plato and Machiavelli lie those of King James I who defended the divine right theory as the optimal mean between the two disparate political philosophies. In a speech to Parliament in 1609, James I argues for the necessity of a divine right king:
The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth ... Kings are justly called Gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth. For if you will consider the attributes to God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a king. God has power to create, or destroy, make, or unmake at his pleasure, to give life, or send death, to judge all, and to be judged nor accountable to none: to raise low things, and to make high things low at his pleasure, and to God are both soul and body due. And the like power have Kings; they make and unmake their subjects: they have power of raising, and casting down: of life, and of death: judges over all their subjects, and in all causes, and yet accountable to none but God only. (King James VI & I on the Divine Right of Kings)
From the perspective of James I, the king is the representative of God on Earth and acts as the enforcer of justice and order within the state. Theoretically, this model would be a suitable form of government provided that the king rules benevolently and with the interest of the people at heart.
In spite of its appeal in theory, Shakespeare, similarly to Machiavelli, maintained his suspicions about the divine right monarchy especially concerning its potential for stifling freedom of expression, which Plato viewed as necessary to the health of the state. Shakespeare's qualms are seemingly justified in the context of King James I's claim in which he conclude[s] then this point touching the power of kings, with this axiom of divinity, that as to dispute what God may do, is blasphemy ... so is it sedition in subjects, to dispute what a king may do in the height of his power (King James VI & I on the Divine Right of Kings). The divine right theory lent itself to suppression of any political dissent, which ironically both Plato and Shakespeare understood was vital to the preservation of a dialectic environment in which the state could prosper. Shakespeare's doubts about the divine right theory are further dramatized through the nature and beast imagery in his major tragedies where he deconstructs James I's assertion of the theory's validity. Ultimately, Shakespeare seeks to create a new, more feasible mean between the views of Plato and Machiavelli for political leaders to abide by.
Shakespeare's gateway play in forming his political philosophy is Hamlet, where the evil in the play is precipitated through Claudius' murdering of his brother King Hamlet for political power followed by his subsequent marriage of his brother's wife Gertrude. Shakespeare's predatory universe is unlocked through the vicious mole passage in which the philosophically astute Hamlet laments that:
So oft it chances in particular men
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As in their birth
By the o'ergrowth of some complexion
Or by some habit that too much o'verleavens
The form of plausive manners-that these men
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault
(I, iv, 26-39).
The predatory universe exists because humans are naturally predisposed to evil-a malignancy whose origin Hamlet ironically has troubling defining. Unfortunately, as Machiavelli predicted, the vicious mole only grows when combined with the prestige and power of political authority until it eventually overwhelms the host, leading to his or her demise. Claudius's political ambition leads him to commit a horrifying act of murder, an offense that he himself later admits is rank, it smells to heaven; / It hath the primal eldest curse upon't, / A brother's murder. Pray can I not (III, iii, 40-42). Ironically, Claudius's sins estrange him from God, who theoretically is the source of a divine right monarch's political authority. This discrepancy hints at the illegitimacy of Claudius' throne and highlights his rule as king as an ironic inversion of divine justice. The ghost of King Hamlet, in referring to Claudius' act of murder, claims that A serpent stung me The serpent that did sting thy father's life / Now wears his crown (I, v, 40, 46-47). The biblical serpent imagery alludes to Satan's temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and serves to further dehumanize Claudius and underscore the corruption of his kingship.
Despite his personal sins, however, Claudius demonstrates that he is a formidable statesmen and politician. In his first address to the people upon assuming the throne, Claudius ironically blurs his leadership role with his incestuous relationship stating that he has married Gertrude with mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage (I, ii, 12). Claudius goes on to rouse the popular support of the audience claiming that in founding his kingship, he has herein barred / Your [the audience's] better wisdoms, which have freely gone / With this affair along (I, ii, 14-15). As a Machiavellian politician, Claudius understands the need to be fox-like in portraying a clean public image and is able to skillfully cajole the audience into accepting his abrupt usurpation of power. Therefore, Claudius' political craft has allowed him to temporarily provide a sense of security to Denmark in the midst of the encroaching military threat from Fortinbras.
Still, this outward façade of unity only masks an inward disharmony of the state that quickly reveals itself as Hamlet begins to pursue a path of revenge on Claudius. As Hamlet notes in his sullied flesh soliloquy, the macrocosmic universe is an unweeded garden / That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature / possess it merely (I, ii, 139, 141). In Shakespeare's major tragedies, under the correspondence theory, the disorder of the macrocosm parallels the corruption in the microcosm-the state of Denmark. In the end, this disunity can only be rectified through removing Claudius from power. This is further justified by the fact that Claudius is unable to reconcile himself with his source of political power, God. As Claudius attempts to pray for forgiveness, he agonizingly ponders, My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen. / May one be pardoned and retain th' offense? (III, iii, 59-60). Paradoxically, Claudius wants to be cleansed of his sins, but he still wants to maintain the benefits that came from his murderous actions.
Additionally, in his effort to stay in power, Claudius adopts the Machiavellian notion of ruling by fear as he cruelly manipulates those around him including having Hamlet sent away to England in order to kill him and later shrewdly convincing Laertes to duel Hamlet as retribution for the death of Ophelia. Ironically, when Laertes-incensed over the death of his father Polonius-threatens the king, Claudius replies, There's such divinity that doth hedge a king / That treason can but peep to what it would, / Acts little of his will (IV, v, 138-140). Claudius' remark, while consistent with James I's assertion that a divine right monarch acts as the supreme authority on earth, highlights the suppression of dissent that both Plato and Shakespeare warned against as a danger to the ideal state. Claudius' rule now threatens the personal liberties of the citizens, and as Hamlet remarks to Horatio in reference to his plans to kill Claudius, He that hath killed my king and whored my mother isn't not perfect conscience / To quit him with this arm? / And is't not to be damned / To let this canker of our nature come / In further evil? (V, ii, 72, 75-80). Despite his efforts to distinguish between his corrupt private life and his public persona, Claudius has allowed his vicious mole to grow to the point that he ironically has become the most prominent threat to the state that he is supposed to preserve. Therefore, it becomes Hamlet's obligation to the state to put an end to Claudius' tyranny by killing him.
Ultimately, Hamlet succeeds in killing Claudius and ironically forces Claudius to drink from a cup of poison originally intended for Hamlet. Claudius' political corruption has come full circle, and he is ironically removed from power via the same poisonous means that he used to expel King Hamlet from the throne. Divine justice seems to be restored, but Claudius' rule has left the state in disarray since the royal family has dissipated with the deaths of Claudius, Hamlet, and Gertrude. Claudius embodies James I's vision of a divine right monarch and embraces Machiavelli's lion and fox theories, but he falls as he misuses Machiavelli's theories to satiate his own political greed. Therefore, the demise of Claudius' kingship serves as a template that Shakespeare utilizes in the remaining tragedies to dramatize the destructive potential of the divine right theory and Machiavelli's ideas when abused by political leaders.
The character of Claudius is further developed by Shakespeare into the character of Macbeth, and both of them find themselves in parallel situation as Macbeth juggles the prospects of actualizing his political ambition with the realization of the murder he must commit to attain the crown. Shakespeare wrote Macbeth particularly for James I, and the play's allusions to witchcraft were designed to appeal to James I's belief in the supernatural. The play itself is marked by unnatural events as Macbeth's pursuit of power and subsequent kingship result in disorder in both the macrocosmic and microcosmic realms.
Initially, Macbeth is hesitant about fulfilling his dreams of attaining the throne, but the three witches' equivocal prophecy that he shall be king hereafter provoke him to reconsider taking action to usurp the kingship (I, iii, 53). As he contemplates murdering Duncan, Macbeth's mind is consumed with dialectic tension as he argues to himself:
This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs
Against the use of nature
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man
That function is smothered in surmise,
And nothing is but what is not
(I, iii, 143-155).
Within the depths of his conscience, Macbeth can sense the impending microcosmic disorder within himself that would emerge from killing Duncan, but his political ambition urges him on despite these warning signs. As Bradley notes, Macbeth's conscience manifests itself through his vivid imagination-His imagination is thus the best of him, something usually deeper and higher than his conscious thoughts; and if he had obeyed it he would have been safe (308-309). The same imaginative speculation that frightens Macbeth and unnerves his conscience should serve as a deterrent to moral corruption, but Macbeth imprudently ignores these premonitions. The most dramatic of these warnings occurs right before Macbeth actually kills Duncan where Macbeth, mentally unraveling before the impending murder, experiences a hallucination of a dagger of the mind, a false creation / Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain Mine eyes are made the fools o' th' other senses I see thee still, / And, on thy blade and dudgeon, gouts of blood, / Which was not so before It is the bloody business which informs thus to mine eyes (II, i, 50-61). The gory dagger serves as the last forewarning conjured by his tormented imagination against killing Duncan, but ironically it comes too late as Macbeth has already committed himself to the murder. Therefore, Bradley paradoxically concludes that [Macbeth's] imagination is excitable and intense, but narrow (309)-a fact that tragically reveals itself in Macbeth's eventual demise.
As Macbeth moves to execute the murder, his target Duncan is presented as a just and well-respected king, and even Macbeth commends him for his faculties so meek that his virtues / Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against / The deep damnation of his taking-off (I, vii, 18-20). But Duncan does possess some flaws as a king-particularly that he is unable to identify deception in others. As Duncan himself states, he lacks the ability to find the mind's construction in the face (I, iv, 14). From Machiavelli's perspective, the inability to act like a fox and detect political trickery can prove fatal to a leader, which it eventually does become when Duncan is unable to anticipate Macbeth's plot to murder him. With the persistent taunting of his wife Lady Macbeth, Macbeth is able to fortify his resolve to kill Duncan, despite his knowledge that This even-handed justice / Commends th' ingredience of our poisoned chalice / To our own lips (I, vii, 10-12). The biblical imagery of the poisoned chalice further connects Macbeth's plot to kill Duncan with Claudius' scheme to kill King Hamlet, and in a like manner, foreshadows Macbeth's eventual fall from power by the end of the play.
Macbeth's murder of Duncan precipitates unprecedented macrocosmic and microcosmic chaos upon his kingdom. As Macduff describes the murder, Macbeth has broken into The Lord's anointed temple and stole thence / The life o' th' building (II, iii, 78-79). As James I would assent, killing the divine right monarch marks an offense against both the state and God. Therefore, immediately after Macbeth carries out the murder, an old man reports strange supernatural occurrences within the state. A mighty falcon is killed by a weaker owl; Duncan's horses, engulfed in a wild frenzy, eat each other; and the clocks read daytime but yet the sky remains dark-an event that the old man struggles to attribute to night's predominance or the day's shame (II, iv, 10). Macbeth's actions have upset the order in the macrocosm and even within his own mind, which parallels the similar mental anguish of King Lear when he finds himself abandoned in the midst of a raging storm by his daughters during the climactic tempest scene. Macbeth, whose conscience is deeply tortured and conflicted due to his moral guilt, is unable to sleep, since only the innocent sleep (II, ii, 48). Furthermore, his crime leaves him unable to pronounce Amen, which ironically signifies his alienation from God. Without God to serve as his moral guide or source of legitimate power, Macbeth's rule degenerates into a tyranny and follows following the same declining trajectory as that of Claudius' kingship. Similarly to Claudius, Macbeth also adopts the Machiavellian lion and fox ideas but misapplies them to his own self-serving ends as he desperately seeks to maintain his fragile grip on the crown.
In order to secure his throne, Macbeth attempts to arrange for the murder of Banquo and his family, arguing We have scorched the snake, not killed it. / She'll close and be herself whilst our poor malice / remains in danger of her former tooth (III, ii, 15-17). This alludes back to the biblical imagery of the poisoned chalice and the notion that Macbeth's evil deeds will eventually come back to destroy him. Evidence of this torment can already be seen in Macbeth who cries out, O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife! (III, ii, 41). The external imbalance of the macrocosm has reverberated so deeply within Macbeth's mind that it compromises his ability to properly maintain order, and he too must be eliminated from the throne for the preservation of the state.
Ironically, the security of his throne is the one element that constantly eludes Macbeth throughout the play. Even with the assistance of the witches and his own political might, he is unable to attain the confidence in his rule that he craves. In the end, his death at the end of the play invokes a sense of relief not only within the state but also within the reader as well. By the time of his death, Macbeth has already resigned himself to his bleak fate, which he confirms stating Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day / To the last syllable of recorded time, / And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death (V, v, 22-26). Macbeth, faced with the imminent end of his short tyranny, accepts death as the only escape from the mess that he has created within the state. Once Macbeth is killed and beheaded, Malcolm-the rightful heir-claims the throne and celebrates the demise of the dead butcher and his fiend-like queen (V, viii, 82). From Machiavelli's perspective, Macbeth embraces the lion idea of using political strength to stave off opposition, but he abuses this power toward dividing and conquering the people of his own state rather than unifying them, which ironically perpetuates his tragic fall. Paradoxically, Macbeth's kingship fails due to the same political ambition that destroyed Claudius's rule, which allows Shakespeare to reinforce the main premise in his critique concerning the potential for political corruption that was inherent in James I's model of the divine right monarchy.
Whereas in Hamlet and Macbeth, the division of the state occurs due to disastrous leadership on the part of the king, in King Lear, the dissolution of the kingdom into three parts proceeds as a direct function of Lear's decision to partition it. In the opening scene, in the play's theme passage, Lear justifies his decision to split the kingdom amongst his three daughters and proclaims that 'Tis our fast intent / To shake all cares and business from our age, / Conferring them on younger strengths, while we / Unburdened crawl toward death (I, i, 40-43). Paradoxically, in dividing his kingdom, Lear seeks to shed his obligations to lead the state while still maintaining the authority that comes with being a king. Lear believes that his decision will prevent future fighting but ironically, it rather opens the door for the sibling dispute that Shakespeare will enlarge to macrocosmic proportions. As the bestial crawling imagery suggests, Lear's actions unleash a predatory universe in which Humanity must perforce prey on itself / Like monsters of the deep (IV, ii, 60-61).
After dividing his kingdom, Lear conducts a love test, in which he proceeds to publicly humiliate his daughters by forcing them to profess their devotion to him. Despite Cordelia's pleas that she cannot heave / My heart into my mouth, Lear ironically disowns her for her refusal to acquiesce to the love test, even though her love for him is more genuine than the false flatteries of Goneril and Regan (I, i, 100-101). Similarly to Duncan, Lear lacks the political perceptiveness of the fox as his pride impedes him from recognizing the deceitful nature of his two elder daughters. Ironically, Goneril and Regan are well aware of Lear's own weakness and are able to exploit it to their own benefit. They agree that 'Tis the infirmity of his age. Yet he hath ever / but slenderly known himself (I, i, 339-340). Therefore, King Lear becomes a journey of self-discovery for Lear during which-from a Machiavellian perspective-he must lose himself within the brutality of nature in order for him to fully recognize the harsh realities that exist within the political realm.
Since Lear has foolishly disinherited Cordelia, he originally alternates staying at the homes of Goneril and Regan until the two sisters, weary of the antics of Lear and his knights, close their homes to him and cast him into a raging storm. The macrocosmic storm parallels the own uncertainty and confusion within Lear's mind as a result of the sinister actions of Goneril and Regan against him. Ironically, the violent storm produces a moment of recognition within Lear in which he exclaims, I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness You owe me no subscription Here I stand your slave, / A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man (III, ii, 18-22). In relationship to the unrelenting macrocosm, Lear realizes that he is just another mere human-the storm does not exclude him from its wrath because he is a king or holds a certain amount of political power. The storm proves crucial in breaking down the barriers of hubris that were blocking Lear's political perceptions. But this glimpse is only temporary and is partially nullified by Lear's following statement, in which he invokes the gods saying, Let the great gods / That keep this dreadful pudder o'er our heads / Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch, / That hast within thee undivulged crimes / Unwhipped of justice I am a man / More sinned against than sinning (III, ii, 52-63). Ironically, Lear invokes the gods to enforce punishment on his daughters, but in a predatory universe, the notion of the gods and divine justice is subverted by the greed and self-interest of man. As Greenblatt remarks, The 'gods' so often apostrophized are, however, slightly vitalized: one feels them to be figments of the human mind rather than omnipotent ruling powers-they are presented with no poetic conviction (187). From James I's perspective, without the gods playing a role, a divine right king has lost the basis for his political power, which makes Lear even more vulnerable to his elder daughters' plots to overthrow him. In such a malicious environment, a king must learn to become self-reliant, and as the Fool states, Must make content with his fortunes fit, / Though the rain it raineth every day (III, ii, 83-84)-a lesson that Lear's experiences in nature will continue to show him.
As the storm rages on in the macrocosm, Lear exclaims This tempest in my mind / Doth from my senses take all feeling else / Save what beats there. Filial ingratitude O Regan, Goneril, / Your old kind father whose frank heart gave all! / O, that way madness lies (III, iv, 15-24). Lear's mind is still in disarray, but he is able to attain another glimpse in which he realizes that his misery is ironically self-inflicted in that his own foolishness and pride made him suitable prey for Goneril and Regan. Lear's recognition of his mistake and the responsibility he bears for the state of chaos within the kingdom prompts a subsequent Aristotelian moment of recognition in which Lear realizes that he neglected to adequately tend to the poor. He states, Poor naked wretches That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, / How shall you houseless heads and unfed sides, / Your looped and windowed raggedness defend / you O, I have ta'en / Too little care of this (III, iv, 32-36). Lear's time in nature has put him face to face with the brutality of life, and he has become a wiser man for it, able now to acknowledge the deficiencies of his time as king. All of these glimpses of the ethereal culminate in the unaccommodated man scene in which Lear questions, Is man no more than this? Consider him well unaccommodated / man is no more but such a poor, bare, / forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! / Come, unbutton here (III, iv, 109-116). In tearing off his clothes, Lear accepts his own bestial nature and subsequently descends into madness. Greenblatt sums up the scene commenting, Lear revolts from man, tries to become a thing of elemental instinctive life: since rational consciousness has proved unbearable For madness is the breaking of that which differentiates man from beast (184). Ironically, it is through his madness that Lear is able to transcend the prior limitations of his pride and gain a fuller understanding of the political realm.
Tempered by his time in nature, Lear is finally able to apologize to Cordelia in which he admits that I am a very foolish old man For, as I am a man, I think this lady / To be my child Cordelia (IV, vii, 69, 78-79). In reconciling himself with Cordelia, Lear displays an unprecedented sense of humility, even in his madness, for which Cordelia gladly forgives him. Their reunion, however, is marred by the subsequent hanging of Cordelia, and Lear, holding her limp corpse, cries out No, no, no life? / Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, / And thou no breath at all? (V, iii, 369-371). Despite his newfound wisdom, Lear is overcome by his nihilism over Cordelia's death, and he too succumbs to death. Ultimately, the overriding cruelty of the predatory universe proves too much for Lear's soul to handle despite his radical transformation. Through Lear's death, Shakespeare seemingly confirms Machiavelli's view that only a leader who can see through deceit like a fox and accept the cold indifference of the political world will, in the end, prove fit enough to provide order to the state.
As opposed to the former three plays where the predatory imagery is dramatized through acts of murder, as in Hamlet and Macbeth, or actual experiences in nature as in King Lear, the bestial imagery in Othello is accomplished predominantly through the bawdy sexual taunting of Iago. From the outset, Iago is presented as the quintessential Machiavellian villain-he is able to systematically manipulate the other characters in the play according to his will, all while maintaining the outward appearance of being honest. Iago's potential for manipulation is evidenced from the opening scene of the play where he is able to incite Brabantio's anger over the elopement of Othello and Desdemona with erotic imagery of his daughter covered with a Barbary horse (I, i, 125) and his daughter and the Moor making the beast with / two backs (I, i, 129-131). Iago's initial success in enraging Brabantio foreshadows his later triumphs in duping Othello.
Othello, like Duncan and Lear, is ironically undone by the same inability to detect the harmful intent of those around him, particularly Iago, which tragically results in him confusing the objects of his rage. Othello's anger, which should be directed against the machinations of Iago, is instead endured by his faithful wife Desdemona, whose love for him does not waver even in the face of Othello's wild accusations against her fidelity. Iago, similarly to Goneril and Regan, is able to successfully manipulate Othello because he understands Othello's weakness as articulated in the play's theme passage. Upon reuniting with Desdemona, Othello rejoices that If it were now to die, / 'Twere now to be most happy, for I fear / My soul hath her content so absolute / That not another comfort like to this / Succeeds in unknown fate (II, i, 205-209). Desdemona immediately rebukes his frightening statement stating, The heavens forbid / But that our loves and comforts should increase / Even as our days do grow! (II, i, 210-212). Both Desdemona and Iago understand that while Othello is a skilled and reputable general, Othello's militaristic view of marriage as another battle to be won ironically blinds him to the true nature of love. Bloom describes the situation as one where Othello is a great commander, who knows war and the limits of war but who knows little else, and cannot know that he does not know (445). A true relationship does not stagnate after it begins, as Othello's definition of love suggests it does-love must grow as the bonds that strengthen the couple intensify over time. Othello ironically misses this key point, and he continues to reference love in the same superlatives that he used earlier saying, I cannot speak enough of this content. / It stops me here; It is too much of joy. / And this, and this, the greatest discords be / That e'er our hearts shall make! (II, i, 214-217). Iago picks up on Othello's tragic flaw and ironically puns on Othello's statement by responding, O, you are well tuned now, / But I'll set down the pegs that make this music, / As honest as I am (II, i, 218-220). This foreshadows the havoc that Iago will viciously inflict both on Othello's marriage and on his reputation within Venice.
Iago is a firm believer in the power of free will over fate and in a conversation with Roderigo, he remarks Virtue? A fig! 'Tis in ourselves that we are thus or / thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our / wills are gardeners (I, iii, 362-364). Iago's garden imagery alludes back to Hamlet's use of the garden motif to describe the corruption of Denmark. Similarly, the evil and scheming in Othello proceeds forth as a function of Iago's will and resolve to undo Othello as embodied in his emphatic creed to Roderigo, Thou know'st we work by wit and not by witchcraft (II, iii, 393). From a Machiavellian sense, Iago directly embodies the political cunning of the fox, but he abuses this power for his own corrupt ends-as witnessed by his tactical manipulation of Othello into destruction.
In the end, Iago combines his vivid sexual rhetoric with the pilfering of Desdemona's highly symbolic handkerchief to ruin Othello's marriage. Ironically, the enigmatic origins of the handkerchief tie it to the same witchcraft that Iago earlier condemns. Othello describes the mystical handkerchief as possessing a magic in the web of it. / A sybil In her prophetic fury sewed the work. / The worms were hallowed that did breed the silk, / And it was dyed in mummy, which the skillful / Conserved of maidens' hearts (III, iv, 81-87). Since the handkerchief contains the remains of dead virgins, it therefore becomes the militaristic ocular proof in Othello's mind of Desdemona's fidelity and sexual purity (III, iii, 412). Once Desdemona loses the handkerchief to the scheming Iago, Iago is able to effectively frame her as unfaithful, knowing that in Othello, jealousy is the green eyed monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss / Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger; / But O, what damned minutes tells he o'er / Who dotes, yet doubts; suspects, yet strongly loves (III, iii, 196-200). Othello's mounting anger concerning Desdemona's alleged relations with Cassio as well as his fear of public embarrassment as a cuckold culminate in his fervent accusations of Desdemona as a whore in which he accuses her of ruining The fountain from the which my current runs / Or else dries up-to be discarded thence, / Or keep it as a cistern for foul toads / To knot and gender in (IV, ii, 69-71). The explicit animal imagery highlights the extent of Desdemona's adultery, which in Othello's view has corrupted the sanctity of his reputation in Venice as well as his future children, which ironically are supposed to be one of the blessings of a fruitful marriage.
Tragically, Othello's rage and jealousy consume him, which leads him to smother Desdemona, ironically on top of the couples' wedding sheets. Once Othello realizes the horror of his mistake and the depth of Iago's manipulation of him, he experiences an Aristotelian moment of recognition in which he asks for an truthful account of him to be recorded, of one that loved not wisely but too well; / Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought, / Perplexed in the extreme (V, ii, 404-406). Ironically, Othello seeks to maintain the dignity of his reputation despite the gruesome murder he has just executed, and he proceeds to commit suicide due to the weight of his moral guilt. Sadly, Othello's fall is precipitated by his own narrow and militaristic view of love-the same decisiveness that makes him a renowned general on the battlefield ironically impedes him from exercising the dialectic thinking necessary to weed through Iago's assault on his marriage. Iago's plot succeeds, and as Bloom notes, Iago's greatest triumph is that the lapsed Othello sacrifices Desdemona in the name of the war god Othello, the solitary warrior with whom unwisely she has fallen in love (472). Like Lear, Othello serves as another Machiavellian warning against leaders who lack the political cunning of the fox that is necessary to avoid the traps of their enemies.
Ultimately, in dramatizing the kingships of the four central characters in his tragedies, Shakespeare aimed to dismantle the workings of the divine right theory within the confides of a predatory universe, where man functions at his basest levels. In the end, the divine right theory fails to deal effectively with the growth of man's appetites and the vicious mole. Ironically, as observed in the case of Claudius and Macbeth, the divine right theory actually further stimulates the growth of the vicious mole to the point that it o'verleavens both the person and the state. Paradoxically, however, Shakespeare appears to simultaneously deconstruct yet still preserve the divine right monarchy. In Hamlet and Macbeth, Fortinbras and Malcolm must both rescue their respective states from the chaos that is running rampant within the borders after the former kings are deposed-ironically utilizing the same divine right rule that allowed the state to deteriorate into such disharmony in the first place. Shakespeare possibly suggests that in theory (but not necessarily in practice), the divine right monarchy may have some redeeming qualities-such as its emphasis on the need for a king to maintain a strong relationship with God-that do not warrant completely discarding it.
Still, Shakespeare further critiques this relationship between a divine right monarch and God in his history plays. In the ending scene of Richard II, Bolingbroke obtains the throne immorally after condoning the murdering of King Richard II-an act that paradoxically leaves him both thrilled at the prospect of actualizing his political ambition but also deeply conflicted due to his sense of moral guilt. Bolingbroke's tortured conscience is evident as he notes, though I did wish him dead, / I hate the murderer, love him murdered (V, vi, 40-41). As a result, Bolingbroke (now King Henry IV) ironically begins his kingship alienated from God, the theoretical source of his power as a divine right king: Lords, I protest, my soul is full of woe, / That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow (V, vi, 46-47). Further sustaining the irony is the fact that King Henry IV now seeks to redeem himself morally by undertaking a voyage to the Holy Land, / To wash this blood off from my guilty hand (V, vi, 50-51), thereby attempting to make the murder permissible in God's eyes. Similarly to Claudius and Macbeth, King Henry IV's estrangement from God threatens not only the stability of his kingship but also jeopardizes the unity of the state as a whole.
Ironically, King Henry IV's kingship soon becomes threatened by the same forces that allowed him to obtain power. Paradoxically, in a manner reminiscent of Macbeth's plight, Bloody instructions, which being taught, return / To plague th' inventor (I, vii, 9-10). In the opening scene of Henry IV, Part I, the English state is engulfed in a period of intense civil strife that threatens the stability of King Henry IV's rule as he actively seeks an end to the fighting-No more the thirsty entrance of this soil / Shall daub her lips with her own children's blood The edge of war, like an ill-sheathed knife, / No more shall cut his master (5-6, 17-18). The microcosmic disorder within the English state under King Henry IV parallels that of Macbeth's state and stems from the fact that both leaders have utilized illicit means to attain power. As the Bishop of Carlisle prophetically warns then Bolingbroke in Richard II prior to his assuming the throne as King Henry IV:
Marry God forbid
What subject here can give sentence to his king?
And who sits there that is not Richard's subject?
My lord of Hereford here [Bolingbroke] whom you call king
Is a foul traitor to proud Hereford's King [Richard II]
And if you crown him, let me prophesy
The blood of English shall manure the ground
And future ages groan for this foul act
(IV, i, 117, 124-125, 137-141).
The violent civil fighting now occurring throughout King Henry IV's kingdom confirms the grim prophecy and highlights his kingship as antithetical towards the health of the state since he rules by a usurped divine mandate. Like Claudius and Macbeth, King Henry IV has misapplied Machiavelli's notion of the fox to fulfill his own ambitions for power, and he himself comments on his duplicitous nature ironically stating, I stole all courtesy from heaven, / And dressed myself in such humility / That I did pluck allegiance from men's hearts (III, ii, 52-54). Eventually, King Henry IV faces death, and as he rests on his bed next to his son Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part II, he laments God knows, my son, / By what by-paths and indirect crook'd ways / I met this crown; and I myself know well / How troublesome it sat upon my head (IV, v, 187-190). As King Henry IV faces the encroaching threat of death, his scheming tactics to steal power have come full circle, and he too must die so that the state can be restored to a sense of order. Ultimately, King Henry IV's rule functions as another reminder of how divine right monarchies ironically could degenerate into corruption and tyranny once a ruler alienated himself from the source of his political legitimacy, God.
As they deconstruct the trappings of the divine right theory, Shakespeare's tragedies concurrently explore the dangers that can arise from a misapplication of Machiavellian principles. Claudius, Macbeth, and Iago all utilize Machiavelli's principles for divisive means, which contradicts with Machiavelli's original intent to use his ideas to unite the Italian-city states. Paradoxically though, as in the kingships of Duncan, Lear, and Othello, a deficiency in a leader's ability to act with both the strength of a lion and the cunning of a fox within a predatory environment has grave implications for the future of that state. Duncan and Lear lack the force necessary to deter their political enemies, while all three leaders do not have the required stealth of a fox to maneuver through political opposition. Consequently, all three rulers are eventually ensnared in lethal traps by their enemies, which has disastrous repercussions for their respective states. Therefore, Shakespeare insinuates overall that only a ruler who can embrace Machiavelli's political philosophy-while simultaneously remaining true to Machiavelli's original goal of unity-can provide the leadership necessary to allow his state to prosper.
In the end, however, the reader is denied a complete dialectic synthesis of Plato's idealism, Machiavelli's cynicism, and James I's proposed mean of the divine right theory between the two extremes. Shakespeare seems to suggest that a new political mean predicated on the best aspects of all three theories is necessary for a leader to survive and rule effectively. In conclusion, a good leader must have a philosophical mindset in order to come up with innovative solutions to new problems; be able to expertly weave through the political obstacles that will inevitably come his way; and must maintain that same devotion and respect for the divine law that, as Plato advocated, should be at the core of any healthy and vital state.
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Bradley, A.C. Lecture IX - Macbeth. Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: St. Martin's
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Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. 15 January 2010
Plato. The Republic. 15 January 2010
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Eds. Mowat and Werstine. New York: Washington
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---. Henry IV, Part I. Eds. Mowat and Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press,
---. Henry IV, Part II. 30 March 2010.
---. King Lear. Eds. Mowat and Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993.
---. Macbeth. Eds. Mowat and Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.
---. Othello. Eds. Mowat and Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.
---. Richard II. 30 March 2010.